Sunday, April 08, 2007
America's pastime is a family tradition (MNA April 07)
By CEAN BURGESON
Spring means many things. Warmer temperatures, budding flowers, the return of tourist season. But there is one thing that spring means to me more than anything else.
The Burgesons all play baseball. It’s a long-standing tradition in my family, starting with my grandfather. Millard was quite the ball-player in his time. As near as I can tell, he played since he was a lad. I’ve found some old box scores and news clippings about him, and apparently he was a member of a few different teams in his youth. From what I can tell, he played amateur ball for a club called the Moose in Bay City. He also played for a Knights of Columbus team and another team called Berdan Bread.
One clipping says that the Knights team was the American League champ of the City Amateur Federation. That's grandpa in the photo there, circa 1933 in his Knights uniform. According to my grandfather, his career as a starter began when he was riding the pine as a backup infielder. The regular third baseman misjudged a line drive and took a hot shot off of his forehead. He had to be taken from the field as a result of the injury, so the coach said, “Burgeson, get in there.”
From then on he played mostly infield, and had some noted play in a few of the clippings, until he was drafted into the Army. After he was captured by the Germans while fighting in Italy, he spent almost three years in a prisoner of war camp in Moosberg, Germany. In an amazing coincidence, one of his former teammates on that championship K of C team, a sergeant in the air corps, was brought to the same P.O.W. camp where he was interned, and the two were able to reunite and help each other to survive for 34 weeks until they were both liberated by advancing Allied troops.
I wonder how much of their talk during those long days of confinement turned to their time playing baseball?
After he got back from the war, I’m not sure how much grandpa played, but he was always available to play catch with me growing up, right up until the time he got sick before his death. He also played whiffle ball with my dad, my uncles, and me every summer at the lake. I’ve even seen him play a few times with the OPC (Older Persons Center) softball team well into his retirement from the Detroit court system.
My father played baseball growing up, too, and there are some old family slides of him and his brothers in those saggy old-time baseball uniforms from the 1950’s and '60s. He played on and off as he got older, and played softball for years while I was growing up. Once I got older, I played on some adult league teams and many church league teams with my dad, with him usually at second base and me at short, completing double plays against the Catholic and Methodist church teams in my hometown of Rochester Hills.
Before that, I played in that YMCA league from T-ball on up, playing mostly shortstop, and loved it like nothing else. Our teams were never great, and somehow were always relegated the sponsors from the lower end of the spectrum, such as an obscure hardware store out near the county line, and we got the team colors nobody else wanted, like green shirts and brown hats. We were the team made up of kids from the other side of the tracks, and would often fall to the much better dressed power-house teams like Keim Realty, populated with players somehow recruited from other districts, despite the denial of the league organizers. Every once in a while, though, our ragged bunch of Bad News Bears would beat the kids from the nice side of town, making it all worthwhile.
When given the choice between playing soccer, flag football, or baseball, I chose baseball. And I was obsessed with being the best I could be. I’d bounce a tennis ball off of the garage door and field it, over and over again. Before that, I had one of those springy nets that I could bounce the ball off of for fielding practice, and I took grounders off of that until it finally fell apart. For fly-ball training, the sloped roof of the garage provided hours of workouts as I’d throw the ball up onto the peak and catch the ball as it rolled down and off of the roof. I even rigged a hard ball on a rope from one of the old apple trees in our back yard to practice hitting with. My dad was the coach, just as his father coached him, so we had all the bats, balls, and other equipment which allowed me to practice all summer long.
And I practiced as much as I could.
Of course, as most kids do, I would wait for my dad to come home, exhausted from his job as a retail manager, so he could play catch with me. I know that he must have been tired, but he almost always would throw a couple hot grounders, fly balls, and hard tosses to me before it got dark — and sometimes it was a heavy shade of twilight when he would finally tell me “three more throws, and then back inside.”
I played the “Y” league until I was old enough to play on the junior high, and then high school teams. After high school, I played in every intramural softball or adult league team I could find until the demands of fatherhood years later eventually made playing ball a luxury my time could no longer afford.
When I was younger, I got to go to Tiger games at the old park quite a few times with my dad, and I would always buy a program and keep score, a habit I continue until this day every time I go to a game. I feel privileged to have been a guest there in the late '70s through the early '90s. And I’m happy to say that I went to a game in 1984, when the Tigers made all metro-Detroiters’ dreams come true in that magical wire to wire championship year. I’ve been to Comerica Park, and it’s nice, but Tiger Stadium had so much history and charm — it’s hard to think of the Tigers playing in their new modern-day park without pining a bit for the old days.
But, in baseball, as in life, things have to change, and one of those changes is that I don’t play much baseball any more. But I’m not sad.
This year, my son starts little league, after starting his career playing T-ball and machine pitch. So, I still get to play with him and show him the benefit of the baseball knowledge my grandfather and dad passed down to me in the Burgeson family sport — baseball.
Cean Burgeson can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org